There are daily experiences of Island life, such as being on a first-name basis with just about everyone, that become routine so gently we are hardly aware of their idiosyncratic aspect. We take for granted having to wait in a line of cars while a boat is hauled across the road, or seeing swooping gulls open scallop shells by dropping them on the road in front of us, or knowing that when we get out of a movie at 10 p.m., the only place to go is home. But the cherry on top of this quirky Vineyard confection is our town post offices. They hold particular charm since most residents of Hartford, Framingham, Cleveland, and the rest of America seldom, if ever, frequent their post offices, and are starting to think of town post offices as antiquated — something out of Lark Rise to Candleford (the PBS series set around a 19th century post office). Who gets “snail mail” letters anymore? Even our return envelopes come stamped with messages that encourage us to save paper and the cost of stamps by emailing our payments. Invitations can be made and sent on the internet, and we can call for a pick-up to send a package.
Ah, but Cleveland doesn’t know what it’s missing.
Island post offices are an experience in social amenities. There are Vineyarders for whom a trip to the post office constitutes the day’s activity. There are women who put on lipstick and blush before going to pick up their mail. Even if you claimed your mail yesterday, you stop in again today, not with the expectation of finding anything, but looking forward instead to a little social interaction and a chance to catch up.
Go to the post office and join the promenade and do-si-do of first-name strangers who move along to a song whose lyrics are “Hey, hey, whadaya know? Didya hear? How’s the family? When didya go? When didya get back? Hey, hey, cold enough for you? Didya, arya, willya, and seeya soon.”
Every post office is as different as the Vineyard towns themselves, and the town residents develop a proprietary feeling.
In West Tisbury the State Road post office next to Fella’s Take-Out is a small, no frills, and lots of smiles experience, where people are greeted like relatives. If you arrive late on a Saturday and knock on the door you’ll probably be handed the package you’ve come to collect. A bulletin board by an entrance posts a notice to vote yes for the distribution of medical marijuana at the Nov. 5 election.
In Oak Bluffs, the post office is kind of folksy. Here a nod, there a wave. Everyone seems to know everyone, including the postal clerks at the two ring-for-service windows. And in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, even if the all the streets and roads are empty, there always seems to be a bustle of people in line.
The length of the conversation you have with a stranger depends on how far you stand from the counter of the postal clerk. Comment on the baby who’s ransacking the cardboard mailing boxes, compliment the boots worn by the girl two people behind you, exchange exasperated looks with the man next to you when the person at the counter begins the process of sending his package to Botswana.
The Vineyard Haven post office is a favorite place for meeting and greeting. It’s rather sprawling as Island post offices go, with potted plants — alive and dead — on the windowsills. There are high tables that allow you to review and dispose of what you’ve retrieved from your box. It’s a chance to purposefully linger with the promise of a familiar, or vaguely familiar, face passing by.
And then there are the government-blue recyclable bins that spill over with contents. It’s an impressive assortment of men’s and women’s publications, health and exercise, cooking, sporting, rifles and gun, baby and elderly, fashion and entertainment magazines. (Hmmm, look who subscribes to what). There are catalogues for the ornithologist, fisherman, farmer and numismatics. On rainy days it’s hard to tear yourself away from digging through the rubble of paper.
For whatever impersonal changes come with advancing technology, Island post offices will, in one way or another, persevere that face-to-face, we’re-all-in-it-together experience. And neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, nor ferry cancellation, will stay these couriers from the swift completion of sliding our bills and catalogues into our post office boxes.